Feliz Navidad from El Rey with tamales, pork pozole and fruit

A Christmas feast, including pork pozole (bottom), ensalada de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve salad, left), chicken tamales (top) and bacalao (cod stew, right), is pictured at El Rey on Chestnut Street on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer

On Christmas Eve, the Mexican city of Puebla is aglow with lighted windows, the air filled with the sounds of music and families, friends, and neighbors celebrating one of the biggest nights of the year. El Rey chef Dionicio Jimenez was one of many children whose families always enjoyed a holiday feast on Dec. 24, sometimes after midnight Mass. Christmas was a quieter, low-key day for sleeping in, gifts, and, sometimes, nursing hangovers.

That’s where the pork pozole comes in, Jimenez said. The thick, hearty soup is served along with the other dishes at Christmas Eve dinner — but there’s always plenty left over for the next day. Its comforting spiciness, topped with bright herbs, the crunch of radish, and maybe a sprinkling of cheese, would perk up even the groggiest holiday guest.

“Christmas Eve is the party. Christmas is more of a recovery day,” Jimenez said in El Rey’s Center City dining room, which was decorated with potted poinsettias and shiny piñatas hanging from the ceiling. “You stay in bed, you open presents, you just enjoy the time with your family.”

Along with the pozole, Jimenez’s childhood Christmas Eve — or Nochebuena — dinners included platters of tamales; a heaping dish of fish-based bacalao with peppers and olives in a tomato-based sauce; a salad with beets, oranges, jicama, and pomegranate; pitchers of bright, fruity punch; an apple dessert salad; and much, much more. The family always started preparing the feast days ahead of time, making enough to feed an army.

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Pork pozole with radish and other garnishes at El Rey.

“You don’t know how many people are coming,” said Jimenez, who now lives in South Philadelphia with his family. “The American way is, you send invitations, you say yes or no. For us, you have a party and it could be 50, it could be 100 people. The guests bring guests, those guests bring guests. You never set the table for any number of people. We don’t like to set a limit.”

Though Jiminez has lived in the United States since 1998, the holiday traditions — and recipes — from Mexico have endured. He usually makes those family favorites for Christmas Eve dinner, starting with a large batch of rich, porky pozole, infused with chilies for an addictive, savory flavor. It can be garnished with anything from slivers of piping-hot jalapeños to slices of creamy avocado.

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Bacalao with tomatoes, vegetables, and olives.

The bacalao calls for dried codfish, tomatoes, hot peppers, herbs, capers, and olives cooked into a rich, flavorful stew to be eaten over rice and served as a main dish. “You can change the kind of fish, but there’s always seafood on the table,” he said.

Tamales are another major Christmastime staple; Jimenez makes his with chicken, onions, peppers, spices, and red salsa, stuffing the filling into a masa harina dough made from corn, chicken broth, lard and salt, then steaming them in corn husks.

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Chicken tamales at El Rey.

A colorful Nochebuena salad made with beets, apples, jicama, pomegranate, and crushed peanuts was always on the table for family meals, Jimenez said. The cool beets and fruit make for a soothing contrast to the spice of the other dishes.

“In Mexico, you use what’s in your backyard,” he said. “You use what you have to make your dinner. That’s why you see a lot of apples when they’re in season.”

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Ensalada de Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve salad, with beets, apples, jicama, pomegranate seeds, and crushed peanuts.

Pitchers of Christmas punch, Ponche Navideño, are set out for children and adults. Jimenez’s blend includes apples, tamarind, guava, oranges, hibiscus, and sugar cane. The drink, served hot, can be sipped on its own or spiked with tequila or rum.

Baskets of flour tortillas fried in sugar and cinnamon are often set out for dessert, alongside a cold apple salad with walnuts and a touch of lime juice, sweetened with condensed milk and peaches. The salad is mildly sweet and lends a crunchy, refreshing finish to a rich meal.

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Chef Dionicio Jimenez’s Christmas feast at El Rey.

This year, Jimenez plans to celebrate Christmas Eve with his family and most likely his extended family, as well.

“You invite your closest family, you invite your cousins,” he said. “It’s going to be 30, 40 people. So you pick who’s got the bigger house.” But to them, he said, hosting doesn’t mean taking on any more work.

“Everyone brings food, everyone is cooking, everyone cleans up,” he said. “Everyone knows we leave the house the way we found it, so we all have a good time.”


Ponche (Mexican Christmas punch)

Serves 8-10

A ponche, or punch, made with sugar cane, Mexican apples and hibiscus.

INGREDIENTS

2 pounds piloncillo (brown sugar cane), cut into chunks

2 cups dried hibiscus flowers or pods

8 ounces tamarind paste

2 cinnamon sticks

2 32-ounce cans tejocotes (fruit from Mexican hawthorn trees)

1½ pounds guavas, cut in half

 

8 ounces prunes

2 oranges, separated into sections

6 green apples, quartered

2 cups golden raisins

2 pounds sugar cane, in pieces or canned, cut into chunks

Optional: 1 pint tequila

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a large pot add piloncillo, hibiscus flowers, tamarind, cinnamon sticks, and 12 quarts water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium heat.
  2. Add fruit and sugar cane to the ponche.
  3. Simmer uncovered for one hour, stirring occasionally.
  4. Serve hot, with tequila if desired.

-- From Dionicio Jimenez of El Rey

Per serving: 530 calories, 4 g protein, 135 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 42 mg sodium, 11 g dietary fiber, 114 g sugar.


Ensalada de Nochebuena

Serves 8-10

Ensalada de Noche Buena with beets, apples, jicama, pomegranate seeds and crushed peanuts.

INGREDIENTS

3 beets

2 green apples, peeled and cubed

1 jicama, peeled and cubed

3 oranges, peeled and segmented

 

Juice from 1 lime

¼ cup olive oil

1½ teaspoon salt

1 cup pomegranate seeds

½ cup chopped peanuts

DIRECTIONS

  1. Roast beets wrapped in foil in 400-degree oven until tender, about 30 to 45 minutes. Cut into julienne strips.
  2. Arrange the beets, apples, jicama, and oranges in layers on a large serving platter.
  3. In a bowl, whisk together lime juice, olive oil, and salt.
  4. Pour the dressing over the salad and top with pomegranate seeds and peanuts.

-- From Dionicio Jimenez of El Rey

Per serving: 183 calories, 4 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 376 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 15 g sugar.


Ensalada de Manzana

Serves 8-10

Ensalada de manzana, apple salad, is made with condensed milk and walnuts.

INGREDIENTS

Juice from ½ lime

1½ pounds green apples

1 cup dark raisins

1 cup Mexican cream or sour cream

1 cup walnuts

2 14-ounce cans condensed milk

2 15-ounce cans peaches

DIRECTIONS

  1. Pour two cups of water into a bowl and add the lime juice.
  2. Peel and dice the apples. Add them to the lime-water mixture. Add the peaches, walnuts, and raisins to the bowl and mix well.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix the cream with the condensed milk.
  4. Pour cream and milk mixture over chopped fruits and mix well.

-- From Dionicio Jimenez of El Rey

Per serving: 444 calories, 10 g protein, 77 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 77 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 71 g sugar.


Pork Pozole

Serves 8-10

Pork pozole at El Rey.

INGREDIENTS

5 guajillo peppers, seeded

5 ancho peppers, seeded

6 garlic cloves, 2 chopped

3 pounds pork shoulder

1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted

2 medium onions

2 tablespoons Mexican oregano

3 bay leaves

4 15-ounce cans white hominy, rinsed

DIRECTIONS

  1. For the salsa, put the peppers in a bowl. Cover with hot water, and soak until soft.
  2. Transfer the peppers to a blender with about ½ cup of their liquid and the 2 chopped cloves of garlic. Salt to taste and blend until smooth.
  3. In a medium pot over medium heat, add 10 cups of water to the meat and cook for 20 minutes.
  4. Add 4 garlic cloves, onion, cumin, oregano, bay leaves, and 3 cups of water to a blender and mix until smooth.
  5. Add mixture to the meat and cook for 30 minutes more.
  6. Add the salsa, adjusting to taste depending on your preferred level of spice, and bring to a low simmer for about 2 hours, or before the meat starts to fall apart.
  7. Add hominy to the pork. Simmer for 30 minutes, seasoning to taste.
  8. Serve with sliced radishes, diced onion, queso fresco, crema, shredded lettuce, tostadas, and lime.

-- From Dionicio Jimenez of El Rey

Per serving: 478 calories, 32 g protein, 28 g carbohydrates, 27 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 102 mg cholesterol, 389 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar


Chicken Tamales with Salsa Roja

Makes 30 to 40 tamales

Chicken tamales at El Rey.

INGREDIENTS

30 to 40 corn husks

½ pound chicken breast

½ pound chicken thighs

1 cup cilantro, chopped

2 bay leaves

¼ cup salt, plus more for seasoning

1 cup vegetable oil

3 cloves garlic

2 medium onions, chopped

1 pound plum tomatoes chopped

6 dried guajillo peppers, seeded

4 cups masa harina

2 cups lard

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon ground cumin

 

DIRECTIONS

  1. Soak the corn husks in a bowl of hot water, using a plate to keep them submerged, until they are pliable, for up to 30 minutes.
  2.  Cook the chicken in 6 cups of water in a pot or saucepan over medium heat. Add the cilantro and bay leaves, simmering for 5 to 10 minutes. Add about 3 1/3 tablespoons of salt and heat until chicken is cooked through.
  3. Remove the chicken, reserving the broth. Let chicken cool and cut into small pieces.
  4. For the salsa, in a separate pot over medium heat, heat ½ cup of oil. Add one clove of garlic, one onion, and the tomatoes, and cook for about 15 minutes.
  5. Add the peppers, 2 cups of water, and the remaining salt, adding more to taste if desired. Simmer for 10 minutes.
  6. Remove salsa from heat. Allow to cool, and mix together in a blender until smooth.
  7. To make the filling, add two cloves of garlic, ½ cup oil, and one onion to a medium pot. Cook for 5 minutes.
  8. Add the salsa to the pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook until slightly reduced, add the chicken, and season with salt if desired. Remove from heat and let cool.
  9. To make the dough, add the masa harina with lard, 2 cups of the warm chicken broth, baking powder, cumin, and a pinch of salt to a bowl. Combine using your hands or a mixer with a paddle attachment, mixing for 10 to 15 minutes.
  10. Drain the corn husks and pat dry.
  11. Starting ½ inch from the wide end, spread about 3 tablespoons of the dough on the inside of each husk, leaving a 1-inch border on the sides.
  12. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the chicken filling down the center of the dough and then fold in the sides of the husk, wrapping the dough around the filling. Fold up the narrow end of the husk.
  13. Repeat with the remaining husks, dough, and filling.
  14. Set a steamer basket in a large pot filled with 1 to 2 inches of water. Arrange the tamales standing up in the steamer, folded side down.
  15. Bring the water to a boil over medium high heat, then cover and steam until the tamales pull away from the husks (about 1 hour). Remove from the steamer and let cool slightly before unwrapping.

-- From Dionicio Jimenez of El Rey

Per serving: 422 calories, 4 g protein, 10 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 18 mg cholesterol, 883 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar.


Bacalao

Serves 8-10

Bacalao with tomatoes, vegetables and olives.

INGREDIENTS

2 pounds dried codfish

1 pound small potatoes, peeled

4 to 5 cups white or long-grain rice

½ cup vegetable oil

1 large onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 pounds plum tomatoes, diced

3 bay leaves

1 16-ounce can long hot peppers

¼ cup capers

2 cups olives

1 teaspoon dried oregano

½ bunch chopped parsley (about ½ cup)

Salt, if desired

 

DIRECTIONS

  1. Soak the cod in cold water, covered, for 8 to 10 hours, changing the water two or three times.
  2. Boil potatoes in a large pot of salted water until tender, about 5 to 8 minutes, depending on size.
  3. Drain fish and place in saucepan. Cover with water and bring just to a boil, then drain, remove the bones, and set aside.
  4. Prepare rice according to package instructions.
  5. Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the onion and garlic, and cook over low heat until transparent.
  6. Add the tomatoes and cook over low heat until the sauce thickens.
  7. Add the fish, bay leaves, oregano, peppers, olives, capers, and parsley. Stir and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes.
  8. Add the potatoes and cook for 10 minutes, adding salt if needed.
    1. Serve over rice.

-- From Dionicio Jimenez of El Rey

Per serving: 603 calories, 32 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 115 mg cholesterol, 561 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar.